Negative Keywords in Search Advertising

Target keywords are familiar to those with SEO or search advertising experience. These are popular terms searched by prospective customers for which we want our business to have a dominant presence. The more often we show for these searches and the better our site’s placement (or “ranking”), the better our business outcomes.

“Negative keywords” are lesser known though closely as important. Let’s explore what negative keywords are, how to develop relevant lists for your campaigns, and how to utilize these to improve your return on ad spend.

What are Negative Keywords?

Negative keywords are words/phrases for which you don’t want your ads to display. These are especially impactful when running search ads for an open-ended phrase or topic.

For example, a lawn care provider would likely consider advertising for a phrase such as “lawn mowing.” However, without more context, platforms like Google might show these ads for adjacent searches like “lawn mowing tips” or “how to start a lawn mowing business.” Both of these searches technically contain the phrase lawn mowing, but any ad clicks from these searches would be irrelevant to the business and a waste of their campaign’s budget.

As ad platforms encourage more open-ended keywords and frankly extend their matched searches beyond the scope of advertisers’ target keyword types, a thoughtful negative keyword strategy is vital for your advertising ROI.

How to Find Negative Keywords

There are several methods for developing a negative keyword list. You can start by brainstorming common sense phrases adjacent yet irrelevant to your business. Terms like “free”, “what is”, and so on can be good places to start.

You can also simply search your targeted keywords as though you were a shopper and browse the search results. What phrases are included in other webpages’ titles and Google’s “people also searched” sections? If any terms don’t make sense for your ads’ scope, make note of them.

For advertisers with existing campaigns, you should also continually review the verbatim searches for which your ads have been displayed. These are currently located under the Insights & reports tab of the Google Ads dashboard and will show results specific to the date range selected.

How to Use Negative Keywords

Once you have a list of negative keywords to add to a campaign, you’ll find the option within the ad platform near where you add targeted keywords. Negative keywords function similarly to these and have the same match types. You can negate your ads appearing for anything from an exact phrase (“exact match”) to any search that includes a specific word (“broad match.”)

For example, a primary care doctor might use a broad match negative keyword of “surgeons” to avoid showing ads for surgical-related searches and use a phrase match negative keyword of “without seeing a doctor” to not show waste funds advertising for DIY-type searches along the lines of “treating back pain without seeing a doctor.”


Negative keywords are essential to maximizing ROI on search advertising and avoiding responding to irrelevant calls/forms. A thoughtful negative keyword list should be implemented before a campaign’s launch and evaluated continually.

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Taylor Brown

Taylor is the owner & digital strategist of Go-To Man Marketing. With a passion for digital marketing and analytics, he's helped clients to grow their businesses for more than a decade.

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